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Raqqa a ‘few weeks’ away as US ups military muscle

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Author: Tony Gamal-Gabriel | AFPFri, 2017-03-10ID: 1489098835391542500
BEIRUT/MOSUL: US-backed Syrian forces said on Thursday they were closing in on Daesh-held Raqqa and expected to reach the city outskirts in a few weeks, as a US Marines artillery unit deployed to help the campaign.
On the other front in Iraq, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the terrorist group’s leader, is reported to have abandoned Mosul, leaving local commanders behind to lead the battle against Iraqi forces advancing in the city.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia alliance including the Kurdish YPG, is the main US partner in the war against Daesh in Syria. Since November it has been working with the US-led coalition to encircle Raqqa. SDF spokesman Talal Silo said: “We expect that within a few weeks there will be a siege of the city.”
Coalition spokesman US Air Force Col. John Dorrian said the additional US forces would be working with local partners in Syria — SDF and the Syrian Arab Coalition — and would not have a front line role.
Some 500 US personnel are already in Syria to help the fight against Daesh. A 400-strong additional deployment which arrived in recent days comprised both Marines and Army Rangers, Dorrian said, adding they were there temporarily.
Coalition airstrikes killed 23 civilians, including eight children, in the countryside north of Raqqa on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor said. The coalition said it was investigating the incident.
Daesh is also being fought in Syria by the Russian-backed Syrian military, and by Syrian opposition groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner with Turkish backing in northern Syria and Jordanian backing in southern Syria.
On the other major flank of the assault, Iraqi forces aim to dislodge the militant group from west Mosul within a month.
Dorrian said the effort to isolate Raqqa was “going very very well” and could be completed in a few weeks. “Then the decision to move in can be made,” he said. The artillery will help “expedite the defeat of ISIS (Daesh) in Raqqa,” he said.
The US military alliance with the SDF and YPG has strained relations with Turkey, a US ally. Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.
Meanwhile, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkish foreign minister, said Turkey would strike against US-backed Kurdish YPG militia in Manbij if they advanced into the Syrian city and found them present, according to NTV television.
A spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the YPG should move out of Manbij to the eastern side of the Euphrates river, which Turkey is broadly believed to see as the boundary of a safe zone it aims to create.
In a separate development, Syrian regime and opposition groups are invited to resume peace talks in Geneva on March 23, the UN envoy said as the US pledged support for the negotiations. Staffan de Mistura announced the date after reporting to the UN Security Council on the results of the last round of talks on ending Syria’s six-year war.
Meanwhile, a defense official in Washington said Al-Baghdadi was in Mosul at some point before the offensive. “He left before we isolated Mosul and Tal Afar. He probably gave broad strategic guidance and has left it to battlefield commanders,” said the official.
On Thursday Iraqi forces were “combing the city center area to defuse (bombs in) homes and shops and buildings,” Lt. Col. Abdulamir Al-Mohammedawi of Iraq’s elite Rapid Response Division told AFP.
“Currently there is no order from the operations command to advance toward the Old City. We will advance when this order is issued,” Mohammedawi said.
Main category: Middle-EastTags: SyriaRaqqaDaeshrelated_nodes: Syrian fighters cut key supply route to Daesh-held RaqqaRival groups race for Raqqa’s controlTurkey sets out Raqqa operation plans to US — report

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